- Published on Friday, 17 August 2012 13:38
- Category: Letters From Tunisia
Tunisia has been called the success story of the Arab Spring. Far from the chaos in Syria and the political power struggles in Egypt, Tunisia’s democratic transition has been relatively smooth and successful thus far. The country is close to completing its first draft of the new Constitution, with elections for public office coming up in six months.
There are, however, many unresolved issues such as unemployment and women’s rights. Recent figures put the unemployed at upwards of 20%. Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Meherzia Laabidi, VP of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, a member of Ennahdha party, and the most powerful woman in Tunisia, to get her take on the problems facing the country during its transition.
Iman Masmoudi (IM): How do you believe religion should interact with the state in a democratic Tunisia?
Meherzia Laabidi (ML): I think that the State must be neutral, with no direct interaction with religion. But religion as a set of moral values, as the way of life inevitably will interact with politics. That is to say we will shape our policies: social, cultural, economic, etc., according to the way we organize our lives, the way we organize our relationships with others, and, of course, which values we hold dear to us as a society. And in certain instances, these values depend upon religion for their basis.
IM: What is your stance on adding a blasphemy clause to the Tunisian Constitution?
ML: Well, I’m suspicious about the working of such an article or such a clause. Frankly, I prefer the work of education and of transforming minds, because a law cannot prevent people from behaving, writing, acting, or performing something that is insulting to religious beliefs or to sacred values. And I’m afraid that some people will try to transgress such a clause. So I prefer an educational process, starting with youth, on the necessity of coexistence, living together, respecting each other, and the ideals of pluralism. But this is a long-term solution, so I understand that some of my colleagues, and especially of my colleagues within the Ennahdha party, are in favor of such a clause or such an article. Because in our country, in a very short time, many attacks were led against sacred values and sacred beliefs. Whether this law or this article is going to pass, I don’t know.
IM: What do you think are the necessary steps the government needs to take to deal with the problem of unemployment? And what is the best way for the international community to help?
ML: I think this [unemployment] is the problem. This is the main issue. The government cannot do anything but continue progressively, step by step, and, of course, work with the private sector. This year, according to the government budget, the maximum we can hire is 25,000 in public sector jobs. This is only about one tenth of the whole number of unemployed people. The government and the public sector cannot provide jobs for everybody, we have to encourage investors, local investors, Tunisian investors. And I hope they will invest and create job opportunities out of their patriotism and love for this country. We very dearly need the help of the international community. We need them to invest in our country, we need them to help our companies, and help the Tunisian State. Unfortunately there is no instantaneous solution for such a problem. All the state can do right now is mitigate.
IM: What is being done in terms of legislation to ensure that Tunisian women are guaranteed their rights?
ML: I think that some women rights in modern Tunisia are irrevocable. They are well protected in the Personal Status Code, a set of laws concerning family and women. I’m sure that no group, no political party, dare alter this Code. Yet, some people will suggest to modify or evolve this Personal Code and this debate is part of the democratic process.
Now, as far as this assembly is concerned, and as far as laws that are passed in this assembly and the Constitution that is now being drafted by this assembly, there is no attempt to weaken women’s rights. But there is a political debate, especially led by some opposition politicians and some personalities from the civil society who are trying to impose a debate as if there is a danger threatening women’s rights.
The truth is that when you see the work of the Constitutional Commission working on rights and liberties, this is the Commission dealing with rights, including with women’s rights, there is no threat to women’s rights. This commission drafted about twenty articles, and these articles compliment each other. Article 22 says that, “Equality in rights and duties for all citizens, men and women, must be guaranteed by the State.” And there are two other articles. Article 26, which is about family, says that, “The State shall guarantee the means and the rights of the family within the context of equality between the spouses, the husband and the wife.” Again, we speak of equality. And then, there is article 28 which deals with women’s rights. In this article, there are two versions. The first version, which was voted by twelve members [of the Commission], says that, “The State shall guarantee equality of opportunity to women in jobs and different fields of life and in decision making position. The State shall engage and commit itself to fight any kind of violence against women.” This is very positive. And it says also that, “Men and women are partners in building this project of a new Tunisia.” And this again is very positive. The last sentence has been rejected by eight members of this commission and it says, “Men and women, husband and wife, shall play a complementary role within the family institution.”
This sentence has sparked a very big conflict. It has been debated by media, by women lawyers, who claim if we say that men and women are complementary, that means, for those who rejected it, that a woman is inferior to a man, because she is meant to complete him, to complete his role. Well, I’m sorry, but in Arabic when we say Takamol it means that there is partnership, that there are two elements who are equal. We cannot complete each other if we are not equal. So I think that the phrase, “Their roles are complementary to each other” doesn’t mean that one or the other is inferior, and especially in the Arabic language.
I think there is real will and very firm will within Tunisian people, whether they are men and women, whether they are rural or urban, whether they are educated or not, to preserve and protect women’s rights in Tunisia. Because we are all aware that women are the partners in this society to build a new Tunisia, and our society has benefited greatly due to the advancement of women’s rights.
IM: The American people are watching the Tunisian Revolution with great admiration, and they want to help. What can the United States do, and the American people do, to help Tunisia?
ML: I think the American people have already done a lot. Supporting Tunisia, the way they did, [was] very important for us. Also, visiting Tunisia and sending their experts to help us in drafting the Constitution would be incredibly valuable. Showing interest in investing in Tunisia would also be extremely beneficial. But what we hope is that these wishes and these expressions of good will be transformed into real projects. Here, in this assembly, we signed, with a large majority, an agreement between Tunisia and the U.S. that asks the U.S. to guarantee Tunisian loans. I think this was very important step for us, but we need more support to stabilize the economy in this very difficult transition period. This is the kind of support we need: economic and political support.
More information on the loan agreement between the US and Tunisia can be found hereBy Iman Masmoudi, Aslan Media Contributor